Forced labour involves work situations featuring two key, interrelated conditions. The first is a lack of free and informed consent (i.e., involuntariness) in taking the job or accepting the working conditions. The second is the application of some form of coercion, such as a penalty or threat of a penalty, to prevent an individual from leaving a situation or to otherwise compel work. The absence of free and informed consent and presence of coercion can occur at any stage of the employment process – at the time of recruitment to compel a person to take a job against their will, during employment to compel a worker to work and/or live under conditions to which they do not agree, or to compel a person to remain in the job when they wish to leave. As discussed above, international labour standards stipulate that both involuntariness and coercion must be present in a work situation for it to constitute forced labour. The 2021 Global Estimates provide insights into the most common manifestations of involuntariness and coercion faced by people in forced labour.
Conditions leading to the absence of free and informed consent
The 2021 Global Estimates indicate that the absence of free and informed consent can arise from a number of overlapping factors. It is most commonly linked to workers being confronted with work circumstances different from and inferior to those agreed at the outset of employment. In 51 per cent of cases of adult forced labour exploitation, workers are working involuntarily because of longer hours or more overtime than agreed, and in 43 per cent of cases because they must perform different job tasks from those specified during recruitment. In 30 per cent of cases, they are working involuntarily because the nature of their job is different from what they agreed to, and in 25 per cent of cases because they work for someone other than the agreed employer.
Other common factors giving rise to absence of free and informed consent relate to job conditions and living conditions associated with the job. Forty-seven per cent are working involuntarily because of very low or no wages, 27 per cent because of hazardous work conditions, and 23 per cent because of degrading living conditions at the work site imposed by the employer, recruiter, or other third party.
Involuntary work also arises from restrictions in the ability to change employer (28 per cent) and because of debt owed to employers, recruiters, or related parties (19 per cent). In a smaller share of cases, lack free and informed of consent stems from having to work alongside a family member who is in forced labour (14 per cent) or because the job is a condition for land and housing (10 per cent).
The latter relates in particular to sharecropping agreements that require, for example, a wife and/or children to perform domestic work in order for the family to have land and housing. Finally, in 1 per cent of cases, the absence of free and informed consent is linked to situations of traditional slavery.
Types of coercion
Coercion is what compels workers to work without free and informed consent. The global estimates indicate that coercion can take many forms. The systematic and deliberate withholding of wages is the most common, used by abusive employers to compel workers to stay in a job out of fear of losing accrued earnings. More than one-third (36 per cent) of adults in forced labour in the private economy are subjected to this form of coercion.
Coercion through the abuse of vulnerability affects about one in five adults in forced labour. This form of coercion involves employers exploiting workers’ vulnerability – for example, their lack of alternative livelihood opportunities – to compel them under threat of dismissal to perform work they would otherwise refuse or to compel them to work excessive hours in order to secure a minimum wage. A similar share of adults in forced labour, about one-fifth, are coerced through threats levelled against them directly. On rarer occasions, threats also extend to family members. Around one in ten of those in forced labour are coerced into remaining in their job through the imposition of a financial penalty for leaving prior to an agreed or imposed departure date.
Other forms of coercion affect smaller, but by no means negligible, numbers of adults in forced labour exploitation. About 5 per cent are coerced through the manipulation of debt – for example, by compelling people to perform work they would otherwise refuse under threat of increasing the debt they owe to the employer. A similar share is coerced through the use of isolation – for example, being kept in a remote location or being isolated from contact with families or sources of assistance by confiscating mobile phones and cutting off other means of communication.
Migrant workers who are in irregular situations, unfairly recruited, or in contexts of poor migration governance can face coercion in the form of confiscation of their identity documents, which prevents them from leaving a job for fear of losing them. Migrants in irregular situations are also coerced through threats of being reported to authorities or deported. Other adults in forced labour are subjected
to more extreme forms of coercion, including sexual and physical violence, forced confinement, and deprivation of food, drink, or sleep. These forms of coercion are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, most of those in forced labour are subjected to multiple forms simultaneously.
The global estimates indicate some differences in types of coercion faced by women and men in forced labour exploitation. Looking at the four most common forms of coercion, women in forced labour are more likely to be coerced through wage non-payment and abuse of vulnerability through threat of dismissal, and men in forced labour through threats of violence and financial penalties. Among
the other forms of coercion, women are more likely to be subjected to physical and sexual violence and threats against family members, and men to confiscation of identity documents, threat of deportation, and forced confinement.
from “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery
Forced Labour and Forced Marriage”
© International Labour Organization (ILO), Walk Free, and International
Organization for Migration (IOM) 2022